May 11, 2009
Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers
Kate Vogl's birth mother tracked her down 14 years ago and has become a second grandmother to her two teenage daughters, Julia, left, and Jennifer. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)
The other mother: A daughter reunites with her birth mother after 30 years
By Maja Beckstrom
You should know what to do when the stranger on the phone tells you the name of your husband, your child and where you live — and then has the name of your father and his hometown and knows your mother just died.
You should know this woman will next tell you your birth date, but you cannot believe all the facts she has at her fingertips, the weight of all she knows. She even knows the hospital you were born in — something you were never quite sure of — but just in case you don't believe everything she has on you, she tells you details about your parents.
... And if you didn't know it before, you do now, that you are deep in the midst of an identity theft. Not yours because the life you've lived was never yours to begin with.
The phone call came just before 10 p.m. on a Saturday while Kate Vogl and her husband, Jim, were watching a video as their baby daughter slept in the next room.
What stranger calls that late unless it's bad news? After the first question, Vogl braced for the worst. She assumed her father had died, distraught after her mother's death a few months before.
'I thought they were notifying next of kin,' Vogl recalled. 'But it turned out to be a different kind of kin.'
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to the woman who had given her up for adoption nearly 30 years ago.
It had certainly crossed her mind her birth mother might someday find her, but she was caught by surprise, still grieving her mother's recent death from cancer. She had not sought this contact.
'I never had that burning desire,' she said. But sometimes, what you don't expect or even welcome finds a place in your heart.
Vogl, who lives with her husband and two daughters in Plymouth, eloquently writes about her mother's death and the relationship that evolved with her birth mother during the next 14 years in her new book, 'Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers' (North Star Press, 2009). This is her story.
"Katie," my sister said, so close now I could smell Peanuts, the stuffed dog she tucked under her face to fall asleep. "I've got to tell you: we're adopted."
We're adopted. What did she mean, we?
... I'd seen "Sesame Street." I knew which one just didn't belong. Mom and Dad and I — we all had brown eyes, brown hair. Aimee, on the other hand, was truly blonde, with heavily hooded blue eyes. Everything finally made sense.
"Maybe you are, but I'm not."
Oh, I still cringe at how easy that was for me to say.
"Ma!" Aimee turned to leave the kitchen, bawling again, but Mom was already there. She was crying like Aimee, her eyes screwed up tight and words garbled through yawing sobs.
"It's true," she got out. "It's true."
And she bent down and took us both in her arms and buried her head in our little shoulders, so the yoke of my nightgown dampened with her tears. She held us tight, like she might lose us again, these children who were not hers to begin with, children she'd made hers with love.
Vogl found out she was adopted when she was about 8, after a neighborhood boy taunted her sister with the truth. In the 1970s in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, people did not talk about adoption. It was a secret that originated in shame.
Vogl does not remember being rocked by the news. She felt utterly beloved by her
mother, Perianne St. Vincent, a reserved Swede and smart, college-educated woman who made ravioli from scratch and sewed dresses for her two daughters.
But she sensed her mother's vulnerability around the subject. She remembers the few times when Aimee, also adopted but with different birth parents, flung the threat into her parents face. If she didn't get her way, she would go find her real mom.
"Kids know how to push your buttons," Vogl says. "And that was the one thing that would drive my mother crazy. My mom would say, 'But I changed your diapers ... I took care of you while you had mumps ...' She went into this litany. And for her to have all of that at the ready, it really shows how much she had thought about it, how much she felt that vulnerability."
Ever the good daughter, Vogl made a silent promise to spare her mother that pain: She would never search out her birth mother.
And she never felt the need — not in college or law school or after she married and became a mother herself.
She asked her mother only once about her adoption. Her mother told her she was the child of two college students who "got into trouble."
... until I was almost 30, I hadn't considered what it would be like for the woman who'd given birth to me. What it was like to carry a baby she knew she couldn't keep.
Valerie Czerwien was a 19-year-old freshman at Ohio State University when she became pregnant. The baby's father, a graduate student in the art department, offered to marry her, but she knew it was, in her words, "not meant to be." Like other young Catholic girls who found themselves unwed and pregnant in 1965, she was hustled off to a home until the baby was born.
"At the beginning, I was incredibly depressed with the loss of her," recalls Czerwien, who today lives outside Cleveland and directs an employment program for at-risk teens. "It was overwhelming. I didn't know what to do. Everybody told me, you have to get over it and get on with your life. So, I did. But I carried that depression with me always."
She dropped out of school and went to work in a grocery store, where she met the man she would marry. They had two children. When she felt those children were mature enough to handle the unexpected news of a half sister, she started her search. Even after three decades, only two of her 11 siblings knew she had given a baby up for adoption.
She contacted the Adoption Network Cleveland and went to weekly group-counseling sessions for a year.
"You go through this process," she recalls. "You understand she (your daughter) might very well reject you. She might have her perfect life, and she might not want to have anything to do with you."
Finally, she was given the name of the couple who adopted the baby. She sat down with her two children, then ages 17 and 22.
"They were, like, 'Great! We have a sister. Let's go find her!' "
They discovered where Vogl lived through Vogl's mother's obituary, found on microfiche at a local library. From there, it was easy to find a phone number. And then Czerwien made the call.
"When I got off that phone that first time, I don't know if you can imagine heaven," she said. "But that is how I felt. It was a spiritual experience. That's what it was. I was so relieved. I was so happy she was OK. She just sounded so good. And she didn't hang up on me."
I didn't want Val sending me a birthday card ... for Val, it should have been a joyous first. For almost 30 years, only in silence and solitude could she mark the day her first child was born. By all rights, it should have been the first time for her to utter "Happy Birthday" to a child she'd longed to speak to, a child whose identity had once been lost to her but now was found. But that was the year that child could not take hearing those words.
So, yes, go ahead and think I was a snot for not wanting Val to send me a card that year. Because I was wallowing in my self-pity that the one who'd made the cakes and sung the songs couldn't do it once more, so Val shouldn't, either.
That's the shame, isn't it? Just when you need it the most, you push it away.
They exchanged pictures, and Vogl agreed to a meeting. Czerwien and her husband drove from Ohio to North Carolina, where Vogl was living. Czerwien remembers being anxious and unable to sleep on the drive down. There was no instant bond when Vogl greeted them at the door, but there was relief.
"She hugged me," Czerwien recalls. "It was the first time I got to hold her since the hospital. When you have the loss of somebody and then get to hold them again, it sounds hokey, but it's the most incredible feeling you could ever have."
Vogl's young daughter distracted the adults from their awkwardness. Vogl and Czerwien exchanged a lifetime of history. Vogl learned more about her birth father, who had been killed in a motorcycle accident just a few years earlier. Then, the weekend drew to a close.
"It hadn't occurred to me Val might want something more," Vogl says. "I remember thinking, 'She's going to ask if she can see me again.' And I didn't know if I wanted that. I could tell she was disappointed. I felt bad. But I needed to figure out if this relationship was encroaching on my mom."
Czerwien was hurt, but she understood. And her patience in the face of Vogl's ambivalence — that first weekend and over the years — made all the difference.
"She didn't demand an instant and lifelong relationship," Vogl says. "She was willing to take what I was willing to give."
They talked two or three times a year during those first few years, then gradually forged a closer bond — but not a mother-daughter relationship. Vogl would always have only one mother. But she found room for "Val."
Val's turn to get a gift. Her birthday, Valentine's Day, and I had something in mind to give her, more than the gift I'd sent in the mail.
"I've been thinking," I told her over the phone. "We need something, some name, for the girls to call you."
"Yes," she said, the syllable ripe with anticipation.
"Because it's weird for them to still call you Miss Val," I said. "That's not fair. It's like you're a stranger."
... She'd earned a name, as much as my mother had in changing our diapers. ... It would be a way for me to start giving over, to start giving back. "Would something like 'Nana' work, do you think?" I asked. "Like, Nana Val? Would that be OK?"
"Oh," Val said, "that would be wonderful."
After Vogl moved to Minnesota, Czerwien drove up for Christmas concerts and for the first communions of Vogl's daughters. They met for a weekend in Chicago and took the girls to the American Girl doll store. She sent presents and cards on birthdays and at Christmas.
"It's hard not to want to build a relationship with someone who clearly dotes on your children," Vogl says.
Czerwien and Vogl's father finally met each other. Vogl read at Czerwien's son's wedding, where she met Czerwien's large family.
And Czerwien eagerly took on a new and intimate role — as a loving critic. When Vogl started to write, she asked her birth mom if she could e-mail her chapters of her novel and, later, sections of the memoir. Czerwien read everything, sometimes twice.
I've been learning how God brings families together, in so many different ways, at so many different times. I said that to Val recently and realized it sounded like I'd been working at the church too long.
"Whatever you call it," I said. "Karma or fate or God or Buddha. But there's always room at the table for family, for more family."
Sometimes, though, it's hard to see you can make the room, especially when you've never set an extra place there before. ----------
Even though Czerwien and Vogl have met fewer than a dozen times, they are close. They talk on the phone weekly. And, with publication of the memoir, there are more trips planned this year. Vogl just visited Cleveland to speak at an adoption conference alongside her birth mother. She plans to return to Ohio later this year for readings.
"It's a fairy-tale ending," Vogl says. "I'm so glad she's a part of my life and a part of my girls' lives. I can't imagine the past 14 years without her."
As for her half brother and half sister? "We're all Facebook friends," Vogl laughs. "It's nice to hear what they're up to."
Vogl thinks it was no coincidence Czerwien found her through her mother's obituary. Perhaps Perianne St. Vincent is still looking out for her daughter.
"It brings me comfort to think of it that way," said Vogl. "Val has become the grandmother to my girls my mother could never be. And when all is said and done, it could be that I spend more time on this earth with Val than my mom."
Kate Vogl will be reading from her book "Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers" as part of a reading sponsored by the Loft Literary Center, along with poet Wendy Brown-Baez and author Mary Jean Port, 7 p.m. June 3, Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; katevogl.com.
Labels: first mothers